Fifteen young people live together in a chilled house just a short stroll to one of the best surf breaks in the world. They come from Europe, North America, New Zealand and South Africa. They all love surfing and get to surf most days. But surfing is not their main focus. They are all seeking a deeper walk with Jesus Christ and have set aside a year to focus on their identities and God’s plan for their lives.
This is Surf Masters, a unique gap year programme of Victory Christian Church (VCC) in Jeffrey Bay (J-Bay) and one of three distinctive Victory Gap Year programmes that have positively impacted more than 350 young people over the past 10 years. Key to these year-long programmes is the leaders’ conviction that the best way to disciple people is to live together with them and to engage with them in every day life.
The other two VCC programmes are Victory Leadership Academy and Victory Worship Academy. The church is also dreaming about starting media, arts, business and missions academies.
But this story is about Surf Masters. I spent a few interesting hours last week with Ludi du Toit, a young man who is being groomed to head up the programme pioneered by his spiritual parents Des and Cara Sawyer. At the time, Des, an internationally respected surfboard shaper, and Cara, were in Peru where their teenage son Steven had just competed in the World Junior Surfing Championship.
Ludi said he grew up in J- Bay and had been surfing since he was four years old. His early years with his hippy, surfer, activist parents were great and he regarded Christians as dull sheep. But his life started coming apart after his parents divorced and he realised there had been no real substance to their lifestyle. He left school after Standard 7 and drifted for some years until he hit a low point of debauchery in 2004. In desperation he prayed to God. He immediately felt peace and later accepted an invitation to attend church from his friend Shannon Ainslie who was one of the first Surf Masters gap year students. He encountered Jesus that night and next day told his horrified friends that his days of partying with them were over.
Ludi said he was immediately adopted by the Surf Masters family even though he was not yet a student. Next year he was accepted as a student in the programme, although he did not have any money to pay for the course. To his surprise he was accepted to spend a second year at the academy on condition that he returned to school and worked off his debt.
It was a challenging time but over the next two years, under the strict but loving discipline of Des and Cara, he finished his high schooling and repaid his debt.
After a season of working for an environmental project he sensed God confirming that his destiny was to help young people who were lost and aimless as he had been. He returned to Surf Master and offered to serve them without pay. “For the next three years I lived in the surf house and learned as much as I could from Des and Cara about how they discipled young people.”
Ludi said that one of the challenges of discipling surfers was teaching them to relate well to other people. “We surfers tend to see life a bit differently from other people. We are independent, hard-headed and individualistic.”
He said that the Victory Gap Year programmes began with a “boot camp” in the wilds in which students from all three programmes were put through tough physical challenges together in forest and mountain environments.
During the first quarter the three academies spent much time together working through foundational teachings aimed at understanding and living in their identities as sons and daughters of God.
Students came from many different countries, backgrounds and life circumstances. Some had just completed school, others had degrees, while some were drifting or in troubled waters. Through the experiences students developed strong friendships and learnt to function as “family”.
From the second quarter Surf Masters students spent more time surfing and learning about surfing history, art and ethics. Some arrived as beginners while others were experienced and eager to learn advanced skills. Top surf coach Shannon Ainslie, who had invited Ludi to church when he was a first year student, also lived in the surf house and was in charge of all surf training. Shannon, like his other colleagues at Surf Masters has a colourful background: he made a decision to use surfing as a tool to share the gospel after he survived an attack by two huge great white sharks while surfing at Nahoon, East London in 1997!
During their year at Surf Masters the students also got a comprehensive taste of community service and outreach, said Ludi. They had opportunities to share their testimonies at schools and churches in various parts of South Africa; they were in charge of catering at the Billabong Pro international surfing championship at J-Bay; they participated in local caring and upliftment projects; and they went out on a major annual mission outreach — this year to Lesotho.
I spoke to the students at the house after they had just returned from a surf. All felt strongly that the experience was invaluable. Ronald Vreugdenhil of Holland said he had arrived with lots of questions but now knew that his purpose in life was to coach young people. Jack Halloran of the United States said he had been living the American dream as the manager of a prestigious restaurant. But God had challenged him to go to South Africa and enrol at Surf Masters. He was learning much about trusting God. Both men planned to stay on in South Africa next year to assist Shannon in his surf coaching business, Surflife.